Inside Bang and Olufsen
In a town in Denmark’s remote Jutland peninsula is a farm unlike any you’ve seen before. There are no cattle, no crops and not so much as a tractor in sight. In fact, it’s an industrial zone made up of 12 factories, the headquarters of which is probably the most gloriously designed set of offices one could lay one’s eyes upon. Constructed of simple, authentic materials - black Icelandic basalt rock, Scandinavian hardwoods, glass and concrete - made up of three buildings connected at right angles and looking almost exactly like one of its products from the 1970s, it’s hard to mistake this for anything other than the nerve centre of Bang & Olufsen. Welcome to The Farm.
A small flock of sheep in the neighbouring field and views out on to rows and rows of windmill turbines across the plains of this extraordinarily flat and gusty part of the world are the only other hints to any kind of agriculture.
“The sheep belong to a farmer nearby,” explains B&O’s product communicator, Iza, as she leads us through into the building. “We actually pay a bit for them to graze here. People like to look at them out of the window and see how they’re doing.”
Inside the main atrium of the building is a solitary object sitting right at the centre of this huge space where the glass, concrete, wood and rock all meet. It’s probably the only company in the world where a grand piano at the entrance doesn’t come across as pretentious, although we wonder how often anyone has the nerve tinkle the ivories. Behind it is the only other discernable feature of the room. Embossed in polished aluminium lettering on the wall the company motto reads: “Bang & Olufsen exists to move you with enduring magical experiences”. It probably sounds better in Danish but the further we get through our tour of the facility, the more we feel it’s a point well made.
Pocket-lint is here, ostensibly, for the announcement of the BeoVision 11 TV and to watch how it’s put together. The LCD displays of these 40 to 55-inch machines are manufactured by Samsung under Bang & Olufsen engineering and technical design specification. The relationship is apparently of two-way benefit. B&O gets a specialist company, which can churn out lots of these things, to do the hard work and Samsung gets to pick up a few technical tips that the Koreans can put into their own TV production juggernaut.
The story is the same across the rest of the line with only the finest ingredients selected by the Danish masters from producers the world over. Specialised machines bought from all over Europe to polish, mill and anodise aluminium - Bang & Olufsen’s material of choice - whir gently all around us; Kawasaki robotic arms picking and placing individual cuts of metal in one shape or another to become frame, speaker grill or section of internal housing. In fact, the company’s aluminium works have become so expert, that it now machines components for other organisations including the stereo systems for the higher echelons of the automotive industry with Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Aston Martin all featuring top-of-the-line models that sport Bang & Olufsen audio systems and fittings.
The reason behind the company’s success in such specific metal work lies with the dreaded designers. Neither Peter Bang nor Svend Olufsen knew much about industrial design. The former was a tech geek and the latter a friend with a canny mind for business and the loft space to convert into a radio lab. The artists have always been outsourced with the company never employing them in-house throughout its history. Despite the famous work from Jacob Jensen in the Seventies and the late David Lewis from the Eighties onwards, both icons of the brand were never officially employed by it. What B&O does afford them, if not permanent contracts, is the promise that the company will machine anything that the designers can come up with. Anything at all.
“David Lewis decided that he wanted the tops of the BeoLab 4 to be highly polished, so we had this beautiful machine built in Holland,” says Ib Kongstad, technology specialist, aluminium, as he pats a great, green, steel frame as if he were ruffling the hair of his son. “So, in 1992, we learnt how to polish aluminium too.”
The company can make the metal just about any colour desired and has also perfected the anodised finish such that the protective oxide layer on top is completely transparent. The secret, just in case you’re looking to do a little anodising in your own shed, is to use 99 per cent pure aluminium with only half a per cent each given over to magnesium and silicon for purposes of strength.
Once all the parts are fashioned, the B&O products are put together both by hand and by machine and finally checked by the eyes and ears of real human beings. Every single BeoVision 11 that comes off the line is individually tested for sound and picture quality in specialised rooms on the shop floor. Each one is brought inside, the doors closed behind it and put through its paces with a series of tests taking around 5 minutes each. Finally, they’re trialled en masse, in what can only be described as TV bunkers, once more for seven, hours to check that they can still perform after stress.
In fact, what’s quite remarkable about The Farm, rather than every other technology and gadget factory we’ve ever been to, is the quiet and calm of it all. Despite what’s going on, there’s little of the mass production feel of the assembly line. Local workers from Struer - a town where one third of the population works for B&O - carefully put together the products with no sense of urgency at all and there appears to be no pressure from any line managers to force things on. On top of everything else that’s already poured into the process from designer’s conception through to the individual unit testing, one starts to recognise where a lot of that price tag goes. It’s care and attention, only at industrial level; something that seems as incongruous as, say, a factory designed like a farm.
If you think Bang & Olufsen’s creation of televisions and sculpting of aluminium is impressive, though, then you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve stepped into the audio side of The Farm.
“There’s a saying round here,” reveals B&O Tonemeister-general, Canadian-born Geoff Martin, as he takes us into his audio lab. “We don’t make televisions at Bang & Olufsen. We make active two-way speakers with very large displays.”
It’s Martin’s job to ensure that every product sounds exactly as it should and, with acoustics considered the core competence of this high-end giant, that’s not an easy task. Looking around, the lab is closer to the Tonemeister’s very own glorified shed than somewhere he might pretend to be working. The lack of a desk is a giveaway but it’s the huge array of speaker types and positions - including three lateral levels of height as well as more surround spots than a Leicester Square cinema - that really tell the tale of this space. There are cables, wires, soldering irons, speakers - some with their casings removed, some of them whole, and a few a Frankenstein mix of whatever has been lying around.
His glee is palpable as he demos the audio potential of the BeoVision 11 and its more granular control than ever before, but it’s not long before the only sound we can really hear is the gigantic woosh as the geek speak flies over even our well-educated heads. Fortunately, it’s nothing we really need to know. Between Martin, his team and a rather unique space known as The Cube, you can rest assured that B&O's quality control is taken care of.
The Cube itself is a room within the facility, just a stone’s throw from Martin’s lab. It’s a purpose-built 12 x 12 x 13m test chamber where all of the audio prototypes are brought to have their sound tested, recorded and analysed to achieve the near perfection that the company demands. The speakers are suspended in the middle of the room with such large distances between them and the walls that it can eliminate echo for long enough to get a good reading of the audio clarity at each frequency. If the cabinets don’t resonate properly, if the output doesn’t look right, then it’s back to the drawing board once more.
Naturally, this kind of investment in each device combined with the luxury design makes Bang & Olufsen unaffordable to many people, and that’s why there’s been the introduction of the BeoPlay range and its embrace of digital music - even if price tags such as the £599 for the Beolit 12 rather push the limits of what can be considered reasonable value.
“BeoPlay is a bit lower on price but still with performance and quality but new group of consumers to experience it,” we're told by Martin, who continues, with a wink: “Then people get addicted and later in their careers decide to go into our core range of products. Once you’ve owned high-quality audio products, it’s impossible to go back.”
It’s not always been plain sailing for this manufacturer of high-end goods. There are times throughout its history when the work force and production has had to be slimmed considerably, and this moment of global recession is obviously a challenge. As well as BeoPlay, the response has been to expand the traditional EU sales to countries of new wealth including Brazil, Russia, India and, most importantly, China where an investor has bought an 8 per cent share of the company.
Quite how how much of an effect all of this might have is hard to tell but the aim is to grow threefold over the next fives years and become 1 billion euro a per year organisation. Simply weathering a storm does not appear to be in question. With far worse survived since 1925, few would bet against them.